In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology

Like most Collins scholars I first came across Jenny Bourne Taylor’s In the Secret Theatre of Home as an undergraduate. By then (the late 1990s), the book had already gone out of print and was hard to come by. Thankfully, through this new-fangled thing called the Internet I managed to get a hold of a copy and it has been one of my most treasured possessions ever since. It has seen better days. It’s heavily annotated and has been photocopied (within copyright regulation, of course) so many times that it’s developed curvature of the spine. I’ve lent it out so many times that I’d now have a modest nest egg if I’d charged fifty pence each time. What this illustrates is that there is still a readership for Professor Taylor’s book, but – until recently – the same readership has been unable to get a hold of it; they have put numerous holds on it in academic libraries, have paid for a train ticket to London just to read the British Library’s copy, and they have relied upon people like me being willing to lend their copy with only a moderate amount of vetting.

In 2007 I edited a book of essays on Wilkie Collins and in 2013 I published The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Compiling the indexes for both these volumes, it was noticeable how In the Secret Theatre of Home was quoted more than any other single piece of criticism. The study has extraordinary buoyancy even after all these years: the points it raises about popular literature and its intersections with nineteenth-century psychology were innovative in 1988, and they continue to inform on-going considerations of both sensation fiction and the vibrant field of literature and science. As Professor Taylor admits in her brief new preface, “there has been a massive expansion of work on Wilkie Collins, on sensation fiction, and on nineteenth-century psychology” since 1988; hence, much of what is written in Secret Theatre feels ‘old hat’ if one was to judge it as a new work. The introduction provides an introduction to the sensation novel which, in 1988, was absolutely necessary, but in 2014 feels like a lengthy recapitulation. Notwithstanding, the summary given here is not only superbly written, but is succinct, makes use of some excellent sources, and provides a pithy account of the conversations that emerged around sensation fiction in the 1860s. One tends not to recommend Secret Theatre as an introduction to the sensation novel in general, but reading this afresh, I was struck by how I had been missing a trick by sending students elsewhere. Students will certainly benefit from these introductory contexts – as well as the lengthy introduction to Victorian psychiatry in chapter 1. Literary monographs like Secret Theatre have an obvious commitment to certain aspects of a field: hence Taylor focuses on dreams, memories, nervousness and degeneration as these will determine her readings of the novels. The book does not aim to offer a historical account of the rise of psychiatry in the nineteenth century, but exemplifies how the sensitivities of literary criticism shed new light on developments such as these.

Taylor’s readings of the novels themselves feel anything but ‘old hat’. Her insightful, complex vision of Collins’s art remains the best. Re-reading this study I found myself newly impressed by the author’s ideas and her ways of expressing them. Whereas many readings from the 1980s have had their day, the interpretations of Secret Theatre merit us going back to think about them afresh. With the sensitivity of a historicist, Taylor’s close readings of characters like Magdalen Vanstone and Ezra Jennings suggest that the iconic tropes of female duplicity and amateur detection emerged at a time when there were new fascinations with identity and ways of knowing. As the sensation novel continues to be the subject of criticism, a reminder of these links is neither unwelcome nor untimely given that questions of female identity and detection will always be a central focus for this branch of scholarship.

The rise of the digital text is a wonderful thing. Like most of my colleagues I worried, when the Kindle first took off, that my beloved paperbacks and dusty old first editions would become obsolete and that we’d all be doomed to drag our migraineous eyes across backlit screens and blinking cursors. But Victorian Secrets’s reprint of this incredibly valuable text highlights how the digitization of books is making important ideas more accessible. There are some downsides, of course. I cannot photocopy sections of a Kindle book for my students; despite Amazon’s best attempts to make it otherwise, it is still awkward to annotate an electronic book; and any researcher will tell you that the ability to flick through a book very quickly (totally unlike the plod plod plod of turning electronic pages) is fundamental to what they do. Nevertheless, at just under £5, who is complaining? Students can buy their own editions; I will no longer have to stand by the photocopier to give them access (which is migraine-inducing); and if notes have to appear in notebooks rather than in book margins, then maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

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